Major Vancouver talents Dana Claxton and Ken Lum have just won 2020 Governor General Visual and Media Arts Awards.
Both were recognized this morning for artistic achievement in the visual-arts category.
Saskatchewan-born Claxton is a Hunkpapa Lakota filmmaker, photographer, and performance artist. In reviewing her 2016 solo show Made to Be Ready at the Audain Gallery, Georgia Straight art critic Robin Laurence wrote, "Beauty and drama are two of the tools Dana Claxton uses to challenge social assumptions and demolish cultural stereotypes." Claxton explores Indigenous issues on multiple levels, especially ideas about how Indigenous women are represented in museums and galleries.
She's shown everywhere from New York City's Museum of Modern Art to Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art. She's held in the collections of institutions like the Vancouver Art Gallery, where she saw a major retrospective called Fringing the Cube in 2018.
From early childhood, Claxton aspired to be a filmmaker. “I think it has to do with the sky there,” she once told the Straight, referring to her Prairie origins. “It’s the biggest screen in the world.” She also spoke of the influence of watching old movies on early black-and-white television, and the impact Vancouver’s punk art and music scene had on her when she arrived here in the mid-1980s. She even did a stint as a fashion columnist and photo-shoot director for the Georgia Straight.
Claxton has taught at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver and is a faculty member at UBC.
"Having started her creative journey as a poet, Claxton’s visual arts practice is equal parts minimalist and lyrical. Yet her video work and performances are also always adept at confronting the commercialized commodity culture of entertainment as connected to the stereotyping and marginalization of Indigenous voices and bodies," said Denise Ryner, director and curator at Vancouver's Or Gallery, in nominating the artist. "Claxton’s move from film and video to performance, photo, printed matter and relational practices are characteristic of the growth, risk-taking and experimentation that mark her prolific career. Across her multifaceted practice, Claxton generously supports and encourages her creative peers and community members, while advancing an interdisciplinary visual arts practice that challenges all Canadians to reckon with the ongoing legacies of colonialism. She is a restless artist who continues to expand the representational and relational possibilities of each medium and format that she takes up, as she works to redress, provoke and expand the visual arts landscape of this country—and beyond."
Lum's most high-profile Vancouver work is the public art piece Monument to East Vancouver—the "East Van Cross"—but he has a vast body of work in sculpture, photography, painting, and other outdoor installations. He's exhibited everywhere from the Venice Biennale to the São Paulo Bienal, and he has permanent public artworks far beyond the West Coast, in cities like Vienna, Rotterdam, and Toronto. He has received a coveted Guggenheim Fellowship and a Hnatynshyn Foundation Visual Arts Award. Lum was appointed as an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2017.
Lum was born and raised in Vancouver but currently lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he is the Marilyn Jordan Taylor Presidential Professor and chair of the department of fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design. He studied in the grad program in studio art at the University of British Columbia.
Lum's work often investigates identity, history, and memory. He has said he draws inspiration from his own family's story, including a grandfather who came here to work on the railway and was subjected to the infamous Chinese head tax, and from being raised in Strathcona and on Kingsway by a mother who worked in a sweatshop. He expresses a keen interest in social justice, the plight of children, and fighting racism. In Vienna in 2000, he mounted billboard-size image-text works that confronted growing anti-immigration sentiment in Austria, and in Vancouver, his A Tale of Two Children, two big photo-text works at the National Works Yard in Strathcona, portrayed two young kids, one showered with praise, the other pummelled with verbal abuse.
Lum has told the Straight, “I think sadness, isolation, ontological questions about who one is—these are universal. It’s part of living—you can’t progress through life unless you question who you are, constantly.”
He is represented by commercial galleries in New York, Berlin, Vienna, Tokyo, and Beijing. But he also teaches internationally, organizes exhibitions and symposiums in the developing world, and has cofounded Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art.
“Of course, you have to make art—that’s the minimum—but living the life of the artist is about much more than just making art,” Lum told the Straight during a 30-year retrospective of his work at the VAG in 2011. “It’s about thinking about art, how to expand artistic language, how to think about the world in the Edward Said sense of 'worldliness’.”
"He is a living national treasure, whose prolific body of work over the last three decades continues to truly reshape the imagination of people in Canada as an uncomfortable nation, fractured by historical trauma and made up of diverse peoples," wrote his nominator Brian McBay, cofounder and executive director of Vancouver's 221A. "Ken’s work manages to depict great tensions in the collective identity of people and cultures who face the difficulties of authenticity and social belonging. He does this with humility, using images that are often colourful, yet plainly rendered, that disarm us and challenge us to reconfigure our closed perceptions towards shared humanity. In addition to the contribution of his work, Ken’s role within the cultural sector gives mobility and certainty to new generations of artists and cultural workers, especially those whom have been disadvantaged in access to the cultural sector."
In another Vancouver connection, arts administrator, advocate, and critic Zainub Verjee has nabbed the Outstanding Contribution Award. Now based in MIssissauga, Verjee is executive director of the Ontario Association of Art Galleries. Her roots in B.C. go deep, including a term as executive director of the Western Front for almost a decade in the 1990s.
Verjee is also an artist in her own right, showing her work from the Venice BIennale to the Museum of Modern Art and the Vancouver Art Gallery. She was also instrumental in helping to launch the B.C. Arts Council and the legislation of the B.C. Arts Act, Vancouver Asian Heritage Month, the film and video festival InVisible Colours, and the Racial Equity Office at the Canada Council for the Arts. She also worked on then-Mayor Gordon Campbell's Vancouver Arts Initiative.
The Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award is given to artists to recognize their body of work and contribution to visual arts. Winners receive a medallion and $25,000 each. The actual awards will be handed out in Edmonton on July 3, with a display of winners' works held at the Art Gallery of Alberta to September 27. The Canada Council for the Arts, which gives out the prizes, is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Governor General's Awards in Visual and Media Arts.
Other achievement winners include New Brunswick's Toronto's Deanna Bowen, Saskatoon's Ryth Cuthand, Nova Scotia's Michael Fernandes, and Toronto's Jorge Lozano Lorza. New Brunswick's Anna Torma has won the Saidye Bronfman Award for craft artistry.